What’s in Your Nightmares? The Top 5 Recurring Dreams of Adults and Kids

We spend a third of our life in a completely altered state of consciousness, indeed madness.  Dreaming is a descent into what would otherwise be a severe form of psychosis, and often these hallucinations are terrifying.  Dreams that reoccur are especially disturbing, and nearly everyone has experienced them.  A new study reveals the most common content of recurring dreams and finds very different hallucinations in the dreaming minds of adults and children.

What’s in your dreams — especially dreams that revisit night after night?  Are you flying high above the heads of other people in gleeful euphoria?   Are you sharing a tender moment with a loved one in a beautiful surrounding?  Or are you terror struck, running for your life from a monster or murderer, immobilized by paralysis or rendered mute as an intruder breaks into your bedroom.  Maybe you are tumbling through the air helplessly or badly injured?

The first finding of this study of several hundred boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 15, by Aline Gauchat, Psychologist at the Université de Montréal and colleagues, is that most reoccurring dreams are not pleasant.  They are most often terrifying confrontations with deadly threats of some sort.  But the reoccurring dreams of kids, adolescents, and adults differ in interesting ways.

There is a long history of research on dreams of adults, but according to Gauchat, their new study published in the journal of Consciousness and Cognition is the first to investigate the content of recurrent dreams reported directly by children.  Up to now, insight into recurrent dreams of children was gleaned by questioning adults about their personal memories of their childhood dreams.  Such recollections are likely to be unreliable, as memory fades and can be very selective.

Here are the most common themes of recurrent dreams categorized in the present study:

Common themes in recurrent dreams

Being chased (Dreamer is chased but not physically attacked)

Physical aggression   (Threat or direct attack on one’s person or character, including sexual aggression, murder, being kidnapped or sequestered)

Falling (Feeling of falling in mid-air, off cliffs or from another elevated object)

Car accidents (The dreamer or another character is involved in a car accident)

Contact with strangers

Death of the dreamer

Death in the family

Confrontation  (Dreamer is confronted by monsters, animals, zombies, or similar creatures)

The dreamer is injured or ill

Stranger entering the dreamer’s house (A stranger is breaking into the dreamer’s house or trying to enter it)

Being stuck or trapped

Others (Dreams including flying or of control and facing natural forces as well as other idiosyncratic themes)

The first finding was that only 9% of the recurrent dreams of children between the ages of 11 and 15 were positive experiences.  Most recurrent dreams involved serious threats, with confrontations with monsters, animals or zombies, being the most frequently reported category.  The next most common theme in recurrent dreams of children involved threats of physical aggression, falling, and being chased.  In 87.9% of the children’s dreams, the dreamer is the target of the threat.  Themes involving car accidents occurred in 6.9% of boys and girls, but the threats to girls were twice as likely to be related to being chased (11.3% vs. 6.5%).  All the other common themes reported in recurrent dreams comprised only 6% of the narratives children reported.

It is interesting to compare these new results with a 1996 study by Zadra et al., on 110 adults.  As with children, most of the recurrent dreams of adults were disturbing (77.3%).  In contrast to children where 45.5% of the threats involved recurrent dreams of aggression and violence, this theme dropped to third place in the top 5 themes of content in adult recurrent dreams, with escapes and pursuits being the most commonly experienced recurrent dream of adults (25.9%).  Interestingly, dreams of physical anomalies were common in the recurrent dreams of adults, but this terror was absent from the sampling of children reporting their dreams.

Table 1.  Most common recurrent dreams of children   

1.  Aggression and violence (45.5%)

2.  Accidents and misfortunes (28.8%)

3.  Escapes and pursuits (22.7%)

4.  Disasters (4%)

Dreams about failures and physical anomalies were not reported by children.


Table 2.  The most common recurrent dreams of adults

1.  Escapes and pursuits (25.9%)

2.  Accidents and misfortunes (19.7%)

3.  Aggression and violence (19.0%)

4.  Physical anomalies (17%)

5.  Failures (6.9%)

Dreams that the researchers found were absent from interviews with children, were the adult dreams of losing one’s teeth, being unable to find a private toilet, and discovering or exploring new rooms in a house.  One striking result was that while friendly interactions were present in almost one third of girls’ recurrent dreams, they occurred in fewer than 3% of boys’ recurrent dreams.  In studies of adults, women’s bad dreams are more frequently centered around interpersonal conflicts and women’s dreams are twice as likely to contain friendly interactions as men’s are.

What’s it all mean?  The authors speculate that recurrent dreaming is related to life stresses and that imagining these threats in a dream state simulates threatening events of real life, thereby enabling our mind to rehearse strategies to avoid and confront such threats.  Since real world threats to boys and girls, men and women, are somewhat different, so too are their threatening recurring dreams.  Children are much more likely to experience threats from imaginary creatures and monsters than adults are.  Adults, through life experience, have learned that monsters do exist, but they are usually human beings.


Gauchat, A., Seguin, J.R., McSween-Cadieux, E., and Zadra, A.  (2015)  The content of recurrent dreams in young adolescents.  Consciousness and Cognition  37, 103-111.

Photo credit:  By the author, from the catacombs beneath the streets of Paris.


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Douglas Fields

About Douglas Fields

R. Douglas Fields is Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institutes of Health, NICHD, in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of the new book about sudden anger and aggression “Why We Snap,” published by Dutton, and a popular book about glia “The Other Brain” published by Simon and Schuster. Dr. Fields is a developmental neurobiologist with a long-standing interest in brain development and plasticity, neuron-glia interactions, and the cellular mechanism of memory. He received degrees from UC Berkeley, San Jose State University, and UC San Diego. After postdoctoral fellowships at Stanford and Yale Universities he joined the NIH in 1987. Dr. Fields also enjoys writing about neuroscience for the general public. In addition to serving on editorial boards of several neuroscience journals, he serves as scientific advisor for Odyssey and Scientific American Mind magazines. He has written for Outside Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Scientific American and Scientific American Mind, and he publishes regularly for The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Scientific American on-line. Outside the lab he enjoys building guitars and rock climbing.

The opinions stated in the blog are the personal opinion of the author and not those of the federal government.

One thought on “What’s in Your Nightmares? The Top 5 Recurring Dreams of Adults and Kids

  1. Meditating a long time, maybe I can give introspective suggestions.
    First, dreadful dreams past since stopping to eat meat and beginning to shift to vegetarian diet. Maybe there is a connection between nutrition and the kind of dreams.
    Second, one can learn to distinguish between uncomfortable dreams, which results obviously in solving problems of the past day, and uncomfortable dreams, which results in a bad mood deep in the body – that means, the dreams are unrelated to the individual life.

    Norbert Nielsen

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  2. Pingback: Nightmares | Meditation and Hypnosis

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